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Free Study Guide-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville-Free Book Notes
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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

After entering the harbor at St. Maria, off the coast of Chile, Captain Amasa Delano soon sees another ship approaching as well; it is an old and majestic Spanish galleon. Delano then notices that the second ship has tattered sails and wanders here and there, nearly running aground, even though it is clearly manned. Delano has one of his small boats lowered and is taken over to the ship to offer his assistance. He is met by a skeletal Spanish captain (Benito Cereno), his attentive black servant (Babo), and a motley crew. When Captain Delano offers his aid, no one seems eager about his assistance; they offer only apathetic thanks. As Delano waits for his crew to return to his ship and get the necessary supplies to help the San Dominick, he gets the story of the strange ship's troubles and observes many odd proceedings.

Benito Cereno begins to explain why the ship appears so tattered and broken. He tells Delano that the San Dominick tried to round Cape Horn and hit terrible weather. Then disease broke out on board and killed all but a few of the Spaniards and many of the Africans. Next the ship was largely stuck in calm water for two months. The ship has come to St. Maria to get water and food, for the few people on board are starving and dying of thirst. Most of Cereno's explanation is plausible to Captain Delano, except for the two months of calm. As a result, he feels sympathetic to their plight.


As he spends the day on the ship, Captain Delano sees several oddities. He notes that Babo seems to be a devoted servant, never leaving Cereno's side; sometimes, however, he seems rather forward and acts rather inappropriately. Delano also notices that the Africans on board seem to be in charge of the deck, supposedly because most of the crew has died; these powerful black men strike him as a bit threatening, even though they work in orderly fashion. Additionally, Delano notices that many times during the course of the day Cereno is reduced to trembling and speechless gagging. Delano asks many questions, both orally and silently. When Delano's questions become especially direct, Babo leads Cereno away into the hold in order to shave him; he explains that they are on a strict schedule. Although he is shocked at the poor manner in which Cereno runs his ship, Delano cannot help having pity for Benito Cereno.

By the time the crew of The Bachelor's Delight returns with water and supplies, Captain Delano has decided to wash his hands of the whole weird affair. After making sure that the San Dominick has the minimum necessary supplies, he takes his leave of Benito Cereno and climbs into the waiting boat with his crew. As they push off, Benito Cereno jumps into the boat with them. Then Babo jumps in after Cereno and attempts to stab him. Captain Delano quickly understands what has been happening on the San Dominick; he realizes that the African slaves have revolted and control the ship. When the small boat finally pulls away, Babo has been taken prisoner, and Cereno has become the grateful cargo. As they depart, a shroud falls from the bowsprit of the San Dominick; it has a human skeleton tied to it. Underneath are the scrawled words: Follow your leader.

Captain Delano makes a deal with his crew members; if they want to go back to the San Dominick, fight the Africans, and take the ship, they can have its remaining cargo, including some gold, silver, and merchandise. Driven by greed, the crew departs. When they arrive at the Spanish ship, a terrible battle ensues. Many men are wounded, and a few Africans and Spaniards are killed. Before long, the Americans seize control of the San Dominick. The two ships then sail away towards Lima Peru, where there will be a court hearing and an investigation into the whole matter.

Benito Cereno's deposition, given for the court hearing, tells the whole horrible story of what has been happening on board the San Dominick. The slaves rebelled, because they wanted the ship to take them back to Africa. Cereno tried to explain that such a trip was impossible, for the ship did not have adequate supplies and was not capable of sustaining such a long journey. In spite of the captain's explanation, the rebels insisted that he attempt the journey. When Captain Delano found them, they had been wandering, aimless, for seventy-three days-looking for water and nearly starved.

During the rebellion, headed by Babo and Atufal, the Africans easily won control. The victors then threw people overboard to drown, including many members of the Spanish crew and all the passengers on board the ship. The blacks also killed the slave owner, Alexandro Aranda, and tied his bones to the bowsprit; they also foolishly killed the navigator, who would be needed to lead them to their desired destination.

Apparently several of the remaining Spanish sailors had tried to tell Captain Delano what was going on while he was aboard the San Dominick, but he did not pick up on their hints and clues. Benito Cereno jumped into the boat because he knew that the slaves were planning to attack The Bachelor's Delight, and he wanted to stop this ridiculous plan against the one person who had tried to help them. Captain Delano was held in utmost esteem by Cereno for the rest of his short life.

For being the ringleader of the rebellion, Babo was put to death; his head was mounted on a pole in the town square, and then his body burned. Alexandro Aranda's bones were given proper burial in the vaults of St. Bartholomew's Church, also facing the square. Benito Cereno went to live in a monastery, where he died three months after the court proceedings.

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